A brief story, told at the dire risk of appearing to fashionably equate my own issues with those of others who have been in the news lately.
Was on a bus yesterday. Same as any day! Caught the afternoon ride home a little later than usual due to a dentist appointment–pressure continues to mount for me to purchase a nighttime mouth guard.
One of the nice things about working in the north part of downtown and living south of downtown is that, while lunch options are somewhat limited, you get on your southbound afternoon bus before the main slog of Nicollet Mall. This means that you’ll generally get a window seat, and you have the privileged luxury of seeing other people standing in the aisles and making desperate facial expressions as some refuse to move back or otherwise rearrange themselves in a humane and ethical way.
Always move back!
Anywho… this particular day, I boarded by the Central Library and took my window seat in the back half of the bus behind a relatively average-looking fellow on a southbound 17 a little after 5:00 PM and poked away at my phone as my people are wont to do.
A stop later, people start pouring in, and a woman (later important) takes the aisle seat next to me. The fellow in front of me is sitting in the window seat and has a small bag on his aisle seat. Another relatively average-looking fellow boards the bus, behind the woman who sat next to me, and to the shock of this nouveau Minnesotan writer, politely asked the gentleman if he could move his small bag so he could sit down. It was at this point that things began to deteriorate!
Sitting man would not yield. An exchange continued for approximately ten seconds, at which point it become apparent that the sitting man was probably not entirely well. He demanded space for his legs. Some people further back on the bus made a motion for the standing man to come sit on one of the seats further back, and after a few more seconds of argument, he obliged.
Shortly after, the man loudly revealed to no one in particular that he didn’t want anyone sitting next to him because he “was not a faggot.” He repeated this line of reasoning some number of times and moved to sit himself in the aisle seat, his small bag moved to the window seat. He continued to talk as he was shifting, and the woman next to me began to raise objections to his language, telling him to be quiet, etc., and the conversation continued in a way that I felt the need to chime in that, while he “was not a faggot,” I in fact was…
(an observation that, having witnessed these types of things in the past, it’s always some lady who yells at the person to shut the hell up. So, point, those ladies)
… He continued loudly talking (I guess at me?) about faggots and even brought the mafia into it, ostensibly unaware that my grandpa is Sicilian. Perhaps fully considering the implications of angering a member of a powerful imaginary mafia family, he did move into the window seat, with his bag, and at the next stop, a person, unaware of the struggle to free her seat, sat in her seat.
And! To be very clear! I am fine. And I do not mean to mock assumed mental illness. This is not meant to be a terrible Thought Catalog thinkpiece about the pained life of an otherwise privileged twentysomething middle class American. Unpleasant experiences can happen in all sorts of locations to all sorts of people–ten feet away, on the sidewalk, on Nicollet Mall, for example. Or in a gas station parking lot in Elk River. Or wherever.
But you’re in a unique position there, on the back of the crowded bus. There are all kinds of stressors and personal schedules and power dynamics that you don’t often come across. You literally rub elbows with many types of people. Checking some date stamps on some text messages for reference, this incident took place in the span of about twelve minutes, from, say, 6th and Nicollet Mall to I-94 and Nicollet Avenue where I got off. About eleven blocks! On Saturday, I left Northeast Minneapolis with a friend and his car at 4:45 PM, set out for the Rosedale AMC, and we managed to catch the last three previews before a movie that started at 5:00 PM.
Perhaps, if there had not been 20 people standing in the aisle between the back of the bus and the driver, it would have been possible to alert the driver to what was going on and have the situation dealt with. But there were 20 people! In winter coats, carrying their groceries and their work bags and lunch boxes. Probably a stroller in there. Certainly on a bus in front of and behind another bus. We were stuck on a cattlecar, just like the tens of thousands of other Minnesotans taking local bus transit in Downtown Minneapolis, burgeoning focal point of our sexy world-class community-based metropolitan area.
In other news, Northstar riders got to ride for free last week.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. People here need to learn how to ride the bus with each other. Riding the bus here just sucks. You can feel the racial, class, other tension when you get on the bus. I’ve been on buses in big and little cities and have never experienced what I see here.
It’s not just the bus, I get the distinct impression that a large portion of people here do not know how to share any kind of public space. In a restaurant, bar, or the sidewalk. In a park, on a beach, at the grocery store, everywhere. I continually come across people who seem to have very little idea how they’re supposed to act in public. From the groups sauntering as many people wide as the sidewalk or path will handle with no regards for anyone else to the people in a restaurant who stand uncomfortably close to your table when there’s a waiting area at the entrance. Or the people who block half of a grocery store aisle with their cart and the other half with their body while they painstakingly examine every variety of packaged food available, then get mad if you are grabbing something in their way for half a second.
For a long time I assumed it was just bad luck that I came across so many rubes/rudes, but I’m really beginning to think that it’s something cultural. Is it because a big chunk of the population comes from small towns in outstate/WI/IA/ND/etc? Are people here are inherently rude because of some passive-aggress Minnesotan thing I don’t understand as an outsider?
But I guess why matters less than STOP IT.
I was taking the 5 heading downtown one winter evening. A guy walked on, went straight to the back of the bus…then clearly assessed the lot of passengers to see which one he would zero in on. I got to be the lucky one.
He got up, sat in the seat behind me, and started yelling at me from about a foot away. Kept calling me a “bald headed white boy” (true), and that I looked like “a skinhead” (false) and that he’d “bust my head open” because “we some head-bustas from Jackson, Mississippi” (weird). I chose simply to not engage.
Got to endure that for a good ten minutes before he got off. So, yeah…racial and class tensions exist. I still like riding the bus though.
Huh. One of the rare “incidents” I’ve experienced downtown involved a guy asking if I’d been to Jackson, Mississippi.
Nothing particularly aggressive, but having gotten an affirmative response, he just wouldn’t stop talking to/following us, including commenting on how I had positioned myself so that I could see the larger man who seemed to be with him. My MIL made a wise decision to make an unscheduled stop at Rock Bottom, and I was rather surprised that he went so far as to follow us all the way up to the bar where the bartender was more successful in tell him to buzz off.
Naturally, when it’s just me, or me and the wife, very rarely does anything happen. Bring the MIL and the world tries to demonstrate that you’ve taken her daughter off to live somewhere scary and dangerous.
Thankfully, she’s a lot tougher and harder to scare than that.
I have. I’ve lived and taken public transportation in plenty of other cities, and there are unpleasant people in all places. Most times it’s just fine, but other times there’s someone with mental health issues, or who is drunk (I’ve been hit on by incredibly drunk men in multiple cities), or is just rude or obnoxious. But for every bad experience I’ve also seen a good one; ride the bus enough and you’ll also see plenty of examples of human kindness and people interacting with others clearly very different from themselves. In any case, bad (or good) behavior isn’t a Twin Cities-specific issue.
That said, people here DON’T know how to move back and pack onto a bus when it’s crowded. Minnesotans do like their personal space.
I think in any major city transit system there are a fair number of people like that. It’s certainly not uncommon on the NYC subway or London Underground. I think most are on the lower end of the intelligence scale can’t really be reasoned with and people just ignore them.
I appreciate you describing this kind of experience – it is unfortunately all too common. I think it sometimes gets brushed off as just an aspect of living in the city and using the bus, but it shouldn’t. It’s one of the major but largely unspoken reason people dislike buses. I’ve also had several experiences when waiting for a bus where people get in a loud and heated argument, which is similarly uncomfortable (and my house overlooks a somewhat popular bus stop, and loud arguments there are frequent).
Sometimes these problems get dismissed as the complaints of the privileged. I think instead we should recognize that while the more privileged among us can act on this discomfort – avoiding the bus, or writing our experiences down – the effect is greatest on the less privileged. That they are forced to put up with it doesn’t make it less impactful. And really – while it’s slightly annoying to me when something like this happens, I am fairly confident that if it’s too troublesome I’ll just get off and find another way to my destination, or if it escalated I could feel confident that the police would be on my side if it came to that, or emotionally I can easily place distance and brush off any harassment.
A bus system where this kind of behavior was not accepted would be of most benefit to the least privileged. And maybe not to the most benefit of that aggressively disturbed guy, but fuck it, if he’s so concerned about being a faggot then let him walk.
Ian, great comments. How do we fix the problem?
I’m one of those ladies who gets a point from Nick.
Part of the challenge is that to have a culture of respect in public space (transit included), everyone needs to hold one another accountable. That means we all — or at least a heck of a lot more of us — need to do the very un-Minnesotan thing of speaking up when we see something. Speak up respectfully, though! Escalation will only make things worse.
More often than not, people thank you personally if you do speak up. (The time I asked the lady having a lengthy, loud phone conversation that I could hear through my ear buds to please speak a little quieter please, she gave me the evil eye, but hung up about 10 seconds later. Getting off, three different people all thanked me. And that wasn’t even a particularly offensive event.)
That also means holding drivers accountable for managing behavior on the bus. If you see something (especially if you are not comfortable speaking up), ask the driver to address it. If the driver addresses some rude transit behavior, thank the driver quietly as you get off. If the driver doesn’t address some rude transit behavior, take note of the driver number and call MetroTranti (612-373-3333) to let them know.
How to fix it? Say something politely. Others will follow your example.
The next question then is how to systemitize this? That is, my saying something doesn’t fix the bus system, it’s when someone reliably will say something on any particular bus. How do we get there?
A bus rider’s union? Maybe… but while you might think that you can’t fix the whole bus system, please do what you can to alleviate the buses that you are on. If no one starts, we don’t move forward.
I don’t know that it’s systemitizing so much as socializing. I’ve written a few things over the years comparing public behavior in Europe and the U.S. To Janne’s excellent point, people in Europe don’t talk loud in most public places like trains and cafe’s. If they do (or most likely, when Americans do) someone will often speak to them about it. Put your foot on the empty seat across from you on the train? Yep, someone will say something. Begin getting on a train before everyone has exited? You guessed it. Litter? Yep.
There’s a much stronger sense of public decorum in Europe. I think people are more willing to speak up because, like in Janne’s example, they know they’ll have the support of everyone around them. People in Europe also seem to place much greater value in their public spaces both in how they look and how they function. They don’t want their cafe’s or buses to become extremely loud and uncomfortable.
However, there are still people on their trains and buses like Nick encountered, though perhaps fewer than we see here. I think if they seem like they can be reasoned with then people will say something but in many cases it seems that everyone understands that they have mental issues and that saying something will likely not result in anything positive.
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Thanks, Walker. I figure if 10% of people consistently say something when there is something that needs saying, it’s systematized.
This was a fantastic post. It really sums up most of my thoughts on this whole topic.
One morning I was taking the 16 bus to work and a guy in the back opened a tin of anchovies and started eating them. The smell was absolutely horrible.
The stock photo reminded me of that one 🙂
Ah, life riding the bus. It does happen everywhere, but transit in general is more dismal here. A few years ago, after happily riding around Rome, I came back and hopped on the 21 bus and felt instantly deflated. And yes, there’s “racial, class, and other tension.” To be fair, I meet some nice people from time to time, in the back of the bus.
This is totally beside the point, but I’d like to point out that the last movie I went to at Rosedale AMC started a full 30 minutes – no exaggeration – after the listed starting time, after an endless series of previews and ads. So, false equivalency there.
My wife and I once got on the 2 at Coffman going West, and there were no free pairs of seats, so we both sat in aisle seats. As we were going across the bridge, the gentlemen next to me decided to strike up some banal conversation.
About suicides on the Washington Ave Bridge.
Just last night riding the Green Line there were a group of teenagers practicing their demo tape, which involved swearing every third word and also pounding their feet on the floor and their fists against the window to create the beat.
Not sure what the point is in sharing these anecdotes, other than to say that sometimes taking transit really sucks because of people behaving in a way that I personally find totally inappropriate, and I don’t know what to do about it.
Speaking of stressors and inappropriate behavior and not knowing what to do about it….I’ve witnessed child abuse on the bus, on several occasions over the years. That’s the absolute worst.
Yes, witnessing child abuse or just really horrid parenting is always so difficult. I wish I knew what to do.
Once on the 16 I saw a woman yelling at her toddler, really in his face. The boy was terrified. I surprised myself with my bravery by saying, very calmly, “Man, I have a two year old, too, and they can sure really press your buttons, can’t they?” The woman stared at me incredulously, but agreed. I then offered to play with her son for a bit to give her a break. It worked for the moment, but ultimately that child had dead eyes. I work at the Department of Human Services and asked my child protection colleagues what to do in that situation. They affirmed what I did, but said in terms on getting child protection involved I would have to call the police. I’m not sure how that would have been possible.
Another situation that still haunts me was a very young mother with a tiny, tiny baby – maybe less than a month old. She was feeding it pink liquid from a bottle and going on about not being able to get into a shelter so she was riding the bus all night. I was with my son and was so close to offering to take her baby overnight so she could get things sorted out or offering to take her to Rainbow to buy some formula. But then, what? Get stuck with a baby I don’t know? End up with some socially-starved teenager latching onto me? Get accused of kid-napping? Before I came to any resolution my stop came up and I got off the bus.
Ah, the conundrums of public transportation with a capital P.
Playing peek-a-boo with bored children on the bus often works — to mitigate the immediate awkward situation. As you point out, though, Dana, it doesn’t address the deeper gaps in our social safety net.
I remember a particularly crowded 10 where a woman was beating her child. Not spanking, beating. He was wailing. They were in the side-ways seats at the front of the bus and it was full of people standing too. The bus driver did nothing. A few people tried to say something, but they were drowned out by the crying.
I’ve also seen people assault one another on several occasions on both the 2 and 21. One of the more surreal experiences was when someone stole a (something?) dollar bill from a handless man and was taunting him at the Chicago-Lake transit center. Eventually he stuffed the money in the handless man’s mouth and it kind of petered out.
Alas, buses reflect the neighborhoods they serve. I doubt you would see this behavior on a commuter express to Cottage Grove or Woodbury.
No- in Woodbury or Cottage Grove bad behaviors are done behind closed doors. Children are beaten and abused everywhere, drunks are in the suburbs and ride in their car home and mental illness is not just manifested on a bus.
this happened back in ’05:
The other day I got on and sat down, and immediately I could hear someone having a way overloud cell phone conversation. I sat down as far away as possible, but it wasn’t far enough.
“There’s no hope for this country. That’s what the pope said. The blessed virgin won’t sit back and let this happen any more,” some lady was saying into a phone. She had a theater voice, the kind that can reach the cheap seats.
After a conversational pause she’d continue.
“It’s all lechery and lewdness. What’s happening in our country, there’s no hope.”
Or, “They’re spitting on the blessed virgin.”
Or, “There’s going to be a war. The Catholic countries won’t stand back and let them do this to our lady. There’s going to be a war, and this forsaken country will learn its lesson.”
Or, “The pope knows, they’re violating our lady.”
Or, “This is not the time and place for this conversation. I’m on the bus.”
She went on and on, for almost half an hour. She’d get louder and softer. It was rhythmic, like the ocean’s tide, like your mother rocking you to sleep at night, only your mother is some sort of Catholic Osama bin Laden.
“Look, can we talk about this some other time?,” she’d ask her unseen interlocutor.
This went on, and I tuned her out.
But once the U of M students started crowding onboard, standing room only, I started noticing the lady again. She was still talking, and it was getting rather uncomfortable.
“All this fornication,” she’d say, well within whacking distance of dozens of hormonal collegiates. “They’re violating our lady.”
She went on and on about “our lady” and “the blessed virgin” until, finally, a girl got off at the campus center and said rather pointedly, “That’s not funny. I’m Catholic.”
The lady went off like a roadside bomb.
“Do you know who I am?,” she yelled. “Do you know who I am? Do you know who I am?”
The girl didn’t know, apparently. She got off the bus without another word, and it was a wise decision.
But our lady had more to say, and kept right on going with lewdness and violation, chatting away.
Curious, I switched seats to get a glimpse of our lady. She was white, in her 50’s, wearing a purple hat. I stared into her beady eyes, and she stared right back, blank as a Hollywood pistol. She was looking right through me, and that’s when I realized she didn’t have a cell phone.
Abe Froman, sausage king of Chicago.
Hah! Awesome story.
We were once in line at a juice place on a somewhat deserted scenic road and the guy behind us was talking rather loudly to someone on his cell about some massively important deal and how it’d make him millions and he planned to retire at 40. I had no cell service, my wife had none, and my son had none. We covered ATT, Verizon, and Sprint.
When he was done I asked him what cell provider he had. He said ATT but some quick fumbling on his part indicated that his phone wasn’t turned on.
All of these stories are why I rarely get on a bus without headphones. I’ve occasionally put them on without music/MPR/whatever just so people think I’m preoccupied. It goes a long way toward avoiding confrontation and the other weird things that happen on the bus.
I get very tired of drunk frat types on the bus after bar close. I have to ride often at those times for work and going from downtown to uptown on the 6 around 2 am is the worst! Especially when they puke, feel so sorry for the drivers. I once saw a short bald hipster guy slap the driver and said he didn’t receive a transfer while holding said transfer. We all had to sit and wait until the driver could get the transit cops to remove him from the bus. Unfortunately at that time of night you can’t just get off and catch the next bus.
Whenever I’m annoyed by _____ on the bus I do try to keep in mind that I’m sure my drunk friends and I were pretty annoying at night on the 16, though I don’t think we were ever really unruly in a threatening way. Haven’t puked!
Have talked to a few people in my neighborhood about a transit rider’s union. It would not just be about troublesome behavior on the bus/train- from major cities and this is pretty endemic to public transportation.
Our issues are the poor connections between bus and train for daily commuters in St Paul and Minneapolis. The constant praise of the train gets tiresome- especially when from people that are just going out for dinner or entertainment.
One person stated very well that the biggest issue living here is that there is public transportation, but it is not a “system” as in other major cities.
Twin Cities is so behind in this compared to other major cities that I am not sure what it would take. I truly feel for those in the suburbs or outer areas that have no real options besides a car.
In related news, “Man With Serious Mental Illness Committed To City Bus”: http://www.theonion.com/articles/man-with-serious-mental-illness-committed-to-bus,37823/